The Polish legislature has joined other Western countries in criminalizing free speech, including threatening to jail people who challenge the state-supported view of history. The legislature approved a bill making it a crime to use statements suggesting Poland bears responsibility for crimes against humanity committed by Nazi Germany. You could receive up to three years in prison for calling Auschwitz-Birkenau a “Polish death camp.”
We have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, particularly in France (here and here and here and here and here and here) and England (here and here and here and here and here and here and here and hereand here and here). Much of this trend is tied to the expansion of hate speech and non-discrimination laws.
Some countries have specifically sought to criminalize certain opinions about history, particularly over genocide. Russia moved in 2015 to criminalize denial of genocide under the same misguided approach. I previously wrote about a similar law passed in France as not just a denial of free speech but academic freedom. The law was later struck down. The Russians moved just weeks after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Switzerland also violated freedom of speech for its criminalization of the denial of the killings of Armenians as genocide. The European Court of Human Rights found that Switzerland violated a Turkish politician’s right to freedom of speech by convicting Dogu Perincek for denying that the 1915 Armenian killings in the Ottoman empire constituted a genocide: “It was undisputed that Perincek’s conviction and punishment, together with the order to pay compensation to the Switzerland-Armenia Association, had constituted an interference with the exercise of his right to freedom of expression.” Cyprus has also criminalized such denial.
The Poles also made it a crime to deny the murder of about 100,000 Poles by units in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) during World War Two.
The effort to compel historical beliefs under threat of prosecution is anathema to both free speech and academic freedom. It also does little to actually change minds. Germany has proven the fallacy of changing minds through threatened prosecution. While I am certainly sympathetic to the Germans in seeking to end the scourge of fascism, I have long been a critic of the German laws prohibiting certain symbols and phrases, I view it as not just a violation of free speech but a futile effort to stamp but extremism by barring certain symbols. Instead, extremists have rallied around an underground culture and embraced symbols that closely resemble those banned by the government. I fail to see how arresting a man for a Hitler ringtone is achieving a meaningful level of deterrence, even if you ignore the free speech implications.
In the meantime, Israel has lodged complaints over the Polish law. That is ironic since Israel passed a bill this year that makes it illegal to call for boycotts of Israeli goods, services, and even universities or cultural organizations.. It has also barred groups and individuals associated with the boycott of Israel.
The solution to the misrepresentation of history is not prosecution but persuasion. Forcing consensus through the criminal code achieves little beyond a superficial appearance of agreement. In this case, the Poles are trying to sanitizing history with little concern of its implications for free speech and free thought in Poland. Poland has a long and proud academic history. This is an affront to that legacy.